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Point of View: Writing a Successful Serial

Scott

I’m about forty three chapters into “The River City Chronicles“, and am also part of the group serial tale “Marionettes in the Mist” over at Mischief Corner Books.

I was just having a conversation with another QSF writer yesterday – someone who is about to embark on a serial project of his own. And it got me thinking – what have I learned in the process of doing two serial fiction projects?

So here, in no particular order, is my accumulated wisdom on the subject. 😉

1) Keep Good Notes: This is by far the most important rule of writing a successful serial tale. Unlike short stories or novels, which are typically reworked two or three or four times before submission and then go through the full editorial process, serial fiction may get one pass – if you’re lucky – and a beta reader or two. Serial storytelling is also different from your normal writing because you do bits at a time, separated by a week or more, so it’s easy to lose track of the story thread. Plus, there’s no back-end safety net to help you catch continuity errors, so keeping organized, detailed notes about your characters is critical to avoiding embarrassing errors in your story telling. Like the time I unintentionally resurrected a previously dead character in River City. Yeah, that was fun.

2) Plan Ahead: You don’t necessarily have to outline the whole thing (though it wouldn’t hurt). But have at least a general idea where each of your characters is going to end up, ultimately. Your readers want to know this is all headed somewhere good, and that it’s not going to end up in a “Twin Peaks” style unresolved debacle. I started River City with a plot idea and secret for each character, and I just recently sat down and plotted out the second half of the story. Now I know what’s going to happen in each chapter from here to the end. Which leads to my third point…

3) Plan for Publishing: You’re giving this whole thing away for free on your blog. Wouldn’t it be nice to make some money on it someday? Plan for an end date for your current story arcs – a point at which you can wrap them all up and turn the whole thing into a manuscript that you can self-publish or submit for publication. This will help you justify all the time you’re spending on it, and will represent a reward for your readers when you finish – they can get the whole story they loved in a version they can hold in their hot little hands or store in their bright and shiny Kindles.

4) Pace Yourself: I have one friend who took on a serial project and planned to post every single day. But these things take time – writing time, plotting time, even thinking time. If you’re writing full time or with a partner, you might be able to do twice a week. But if it’s just you slogging through your story alone, shoot for once a week. I do weekly posts of about 1,000 words apiece, and it’s still a challenge sometimes to get them done. I’m not a full-time writer, so I have to fit this in with my relationship and my job, and my other writing. I’ve found that my schedule is do-able, for me – figure out what will work for you.

5) Be Consistent: One of the other keys to a successful serial tale is consistency – publish it on the same day, every week (or every other week, etc – whatever you have chosen) without fail. And if you can get ahead a few weeks, it doesn’t hurt.Since I launched it last fall, I have hit every week except Christmas week. Your readers are expecting a new tale from you on a regular basis – don’t disappoint them.

6) Consider Your Storytelling Strategy: There are a number of ways to tell a serial tale. The group at MCB is rotating their stories through four characters, one per post, each four posts making up a chapter. For River City, I jump back and forth between characters quite a bit, but have one overarching plot device. Another friend of mine plans to tell a series of short stories that all interconnect, to “reward” his readers every month or so with a nice ending. Think about how you will tell your own stories, and how you plan to keep readers engaged. Also, pace your highs and lows. I had a series of harrowing chapters in River City recently, so now I’m giving the characters a bit of a break. But don’t expect it to last. *grin*

7) Find a Good Beta Reader (or Two): You’re too close to the story – the author always is. So find yourself a good beta reader to help you catch issues – typos, things that are unclear in the storytelling, and consistency errors. For Marionettes in the Mist, the four of us act as each others’ betas, and one of us is the story master, able to approve or veto story ideas. For River City, I have one beta, and my Italian translator also catches things occasionally, especially cultural issues. Don’t trust your own eyes.

8) Think Outside the Box: It’s also great to have something truly unique about your story. For River City, I decided to have it translated into Italian as I went, since a) two of the main characters are Italian, b) the Italian language is a running theme, and c) two of our best friends are Italian, and I wanted them to be able to read it. It’s something unique about my story that you won’t find in other serials, and it opens up a secondary market of potential readers. Another friend of mine is including illustrations in his serial stories. Come up with something unique about your serial tale that will bring your readers back week after week.

9) Get a URL: For those of you who don’t know the term, a URL is a website address – like www.facebook.com. or www.therivercitychronicles.com. Consider getting one for your story. They’re not that expensive – $8-35 typically at GoDaddy.com – and give you an easy shortcut to send people to your serial tale.

10) Promote Your Serial: Many of us are not strong on self promotion. But you need people to find your story first if they’re going to read it. Hit all the usual Facebook pages (judiciously) when each new post releases. But also consider other methods. For River City, I had cards printed up with the “cover” image that I take to coffee shops around town for their bulletin boards. It’s a local tale, so it makes sense to promote it locally. Mark and I are planning a bike tour later this month to hit every Starbucks and Peets in Midtown to put these cards on their bulletin boards – my own little guerrilla marketing campaign. I’m also working on outreach with the Sacramento LGBT Center, and have been featured in my local papers. It never hurts to ask.

If you are considering starting a new serial project, I’m so excited for you. It’s a lot of work, but it’s also very rewarding when you meet readers who tell you how much they love the story. So jump in! Just make sure you’re prepared to do this every week.

If you are about to start one, what questions do you have? And if you already have one, what tips would you add?

1 thought on “Point of View: Writing a Successful Serial”

  1. Thanks for this, Scott! I’ve been thinking about doing a serial novel myself, but I don’t have all that much writing time, so I figured I’d better wait until I’ve largely finished the thing! (Plus, I’m writing a lot of short-shorts these days which does fulfill the goal of posting some of my fiction.!) And, yes, selling it is a big goal down the road! So, thanks again!

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